An Apocalyptic History of the Early Fatimid Empire

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Jamel Velji
Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Apocalypticism and Eschatology
  • Edinburgh, UK: 
    Edinburgh University Press
    , August
     2016.
     160 pages.
     £70.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780748690886.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this slender volume, Jamel A. Velji sets out to explore the millenarian dimensions of the movement that brought the Fatimid dynasty to power and the deployment of eschatological expectations as a legitimizing tool by the first Fatimid caliphs and the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs of Iran. The author embarks on this course by offering the reader a window onto the Fatimid art of taʾwīl, or allegorical interpretation, in the opening chapter. Here Velji shows how, for the Ismāʿīlī Shia, correct understanding of the true meaning of Quranic proclamations went hand-in-hand with the recognition of ʿAlī, the first Shii imām, not only as the legatee of the prophet Muhammad, but also as the mediator of the esoteric truths hidden in the scripture.

The second chapter discusses the process of initiation into the Fatimid movement and the special emphasis placed on the oath of allegiance in it—a pledge likened to the signing of the primordial pact between God and humankind. The next chapter provides an examination of apocalyptic rhetoric in the late-ninth-century Kitāb al-Kashf (Book of Unveiling), attributed, spuriously, to Jaʿfar ibn Manṣūr al-Yaman (d. shortly after 953), and the ways in which it reinterprets the eschatological imagery of the Qur’an to serve the interests of the Fatimid movement.

Not unlike the Abbasids, the Fatimids rose to power by installing themselves at the head of a secret revolutionary organization whose members were convinced that the end was at hand, and that the Mahdī, the Muslim messiah, would come out of hiding if his followers succeeded in establishing his political authority on earth. The book’s fourth chapter investigates the heightened eschatology of Kitāb al-Rushd wa-l-hidāya (Book of the Right Path and Guidance), which bears ample witness to the chiliastic character of the movement in its revolutionary phase.

To fulfil these messianic expectations, the first Fatimid caliph assumed the regnal title of al-Mahdī upon ascending the throne, thereby declaring the promised utopia materialized. However, as time went by, the Fatimids—who had at first so successfully exploited this eschatological fervor—increasingly found it to be a double-edged sword: just as in other millennial movements, the failure of the end to come about would leave their following ever-more disillusioned about their claims. The fifth chapter discusses the Fatimid response to this crisis. The principal documentary witness to this episode is a letter ascribed to al-Mahdī himself, and addressed to the people of Yemen, in which the caliph attempts to curb the sense of eschatological immediacy among his followers by asserting that he is but the first of a number of mahdīs, of whom only the last one will be the harbinger of the eschaton. While Velji agrees with other scholars that the text might very well be composite, or even a whole series of letters written during a long period of time, (76) he fails to notice that at least this part of the letter cannot have been composed by al-Mahdī himself, for, as the eschatological Mahdī, the end of time was supposed to arrive only after his death. It was this failure of the eschaton to materialize in the aftermath of his death that would have necessitated a reappraisal of his messianic pretensions by his successors.

The book veers off its course in the sixth chapter to discuss al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān’s allegorical exegesis of the pilgrimage to Mecca in his Taʾwīl al-daʿāʾim (Exegesis of the Pillars), a topic only tangential to its title. This excursion continues in the final two chapters, where the book moves forward over two centuries in time to Ḥasan ʿalā dhikrihi l-salām’s declaration of the arrival of the endtimes in the fortress of Alamūt in 1164.

Overall, An Apocalyptic History of the Early Fatimid Empire makes a compelling case for the prominence of messianic hopes and eschatological expectations in the rise and early rule of the Fatimids. Nevertheless, it suffers from several weaknesses. One would have liked to see a more thorough treatment of how Fatimid missionaries actually preached the proximity of the end. This could have been attained, for instance, by an examination of the rich collection of apocalyptic traditions in al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān’s Sharḥ al-akhbār fī faḍāʾil al-aʾimma al-aṭhār (The Exposition of the Reports Concerning the Merits of the Pure Imāms). Indeed, this is the most glaring absence from the book’s bibliography. A more in-depth engagement with the history of the period would have been welcome too, especially more use of the numismatic evidence, which is invariably a particularly forthcoming source for the study of state-sponsored propaganda. The inclusion of the last three chapters renders the narrative even less cohesive, and most of the lengthy quotations from secondary literature could have been dispensed with without any damage to the argument.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mehdy Shaddel is a scholar of Islamic history.

Date of Review: 
November 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jamel Velji is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. In addition to his interests in Shia materials and Islamic intellectual history more broadly he is interested in apocalypticism, method and theory in the study of religion, and religion and violence.

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